Environmental studies senior Marisa Zimmerman said she’ll be sad to say goodbye to some of her UCF pals after commencement this week – several families of Florida sandhill cranes that she has been studying on campus the past two years.

The student researcher recorded the cranes’ movements, patterns, nesting locations, food sources, and other information to establish a baseline of understanding about the birds and how to help provide for their protection on campus. She worked on the project through UCF’s Research and Mentoring Program at the Arboretum, and presented her findings at the recent Showcase of Undergraduate Research Excellence.

Zimmerman said she found 16 birds living on the campus, including one pair she named Bonnie and Clyde that live northwest of the CFE Arena. Although not migratory, some of the birds apparently wander during summers, when the campus population sometimes dips down to two birds, she said.

Even though twice a week she traveled an observation route that snaked around and through the 1,415-acre campus, she said she couldn’t have had such a detailed account of the birds without the help of others.

Last fall she enlisted the help of “citizen scientists” and asked them to help photograph sightings of the birds for her study. In all, she amassed 560 photos of the cranes, more than 400 of them submitted by UCF students and employees from their cellphones.

“That was critical to help the study,” she said.

The species is known for living around urban areas, and the birds are listed as threatened because of loss of habitat, mostly because of development. The heron-like birds stand about 4 feet tall with a patch of bald, red skin on top of their heads, and they usually are seen in small family groups or pairs.

“I thought they would be more repelled by people and traffic, but they weren’t,” Zimmerman said.

Part of the study was to determine which areas on campus would benefit most from preservation. Some of her findings showed:

  • Only one marsh on campus is suitable as a nesting habitat. As many as six nests have been recorded there but because the habitat is not optimal, none of the cranes produced offspring there.
  • Two pairs of cranes were observed nesting and rearing three young in Central Florida Research Park adjacent to the university; these birds also forage on the south end of campus.
  • Cranes are not distributed randomly throughout campus. They prefer to forage in areas with irrigated grasses with relatively less building and dense woodland cover.
  • Zimmerman said she hopes this is just the beginning of research to help protect the species on campus. To help them coexist with university development and life, she said, the state needs to keep rules in place to protect them and the wetlands. Harassing the birds now can result in a fine or jail time.

    The graduate said she plans to start work on her master’s in behavioral ecology within two years.

    Marisa Zimmerman is scheduled to graduate during UCF’s Office of Undergraduate Studies commencement ceremony at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, May 3, at the CFE Arena. For details about all of this week’s ceremonies, go to https://www.ucf.edu/news/ucf-celebrates-graduation-6-ceremonies-may-1-3/.